Commuting in a Post-COVID-19 World

JLL’s Lauren Gilchrist talks about the pandemic’s impact on transit and how alternative working patterns change commuter traffic.

Lauren Gilchrist, Senior Vice President, JLL. Image courtesy of JLL

The corporate workforce’s return to the office will be a slow process, and with social distancing rules still in place, we’ll need to change the way we approach getting to and from work. In a recent report on post-pandemic commuting, JLL discusses the challenges mass transit users are facing during the ongoing crisis. But will public transportation bounce back? While the report mentions potential solutions for the post-COVID-19 normal, this new concept is actively changing, as it largely depends on how much longer people will work remotely.

Lauren Gilchrist, JLL’s senior vice president & senior director of research for Philadelphia, specializes in urban and regional economics and demography. In an interview with Commercial Property Executive, she discusses how transportation patterns have changed since the onset of the pandemic, and provides a glimpse into the future of work and commuting.

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How has the pandemic affected public transit and the decision to return to the office?

Gilchrist: The pandemic’s effects on public transit are multifaceted. Significant drops in ridership around the country have created severe financial stress for transit agencies at a time when costs to maintain the cleanliness of systems are increasing significantly.

It’s hard to say at this moment how transit ridership will change when workers begin to return to the office. Where we have seen some offices start to slowly ramp up employee capacity, such increases haven’t been universal, and it’s actually quite easy at the moment to stay socially distant on transit due to low utilization.

With improved sanitation, trains and buses are much cleaner than ever. All indications point to multiple return-to-the-office points, with some companies considering returning in significant numbers from early fall through 2021, and others maintaining a significant proportion of their workforce at home, indefinitely.

Will those staying at home cause a tangible decline in daily commuting? Quite possibly. For employers, worker hesitation to ride public transit may push them to consider satellite office strategies, additional suburban locations, and increased parking for offices should more workers choose to drive.

What challenges will public transit users encounter once they return to work?

Gilchrist: Ongoing social distance requirements will likely result in the need for additional system capacity. As transit agencies have experienced rising costs and decreased ridership, it will be interesting to see if they are able to respond with additional train cars and buses. If not, employees should expect longer wait times.

If ridership declines due to ongoing health concerns, public transit may actually be less crowded than before, making commutes easier. Across the board in the short term, whether they are driving or taking transit, employees should plan for additional wait times due to increased traffic and social distancing.

What do you think will happen to the nation’s biggest infrastructure projects?

Gilchrist: Our infrastructure has been in need of maintenance investment—for decades—and new public transit routes and highways, regardless of the pandemic. I expect these projects to continue and believe that new projects will emerge as consumer sentiment shifts—or stays the same—in a post-vaccine era. Now is a great time to be working on bridge, road and rail repairs, as Americans stay closer to home.

What will the future of work and commuting look like?

Gilchrist: First and foremost, I think many American workers have begun to realize the extent to which they took their work community for granted. From casual coffee conversations to the sense of belonging that comes from solving a big problem with a team, there is no substitute for being together in the workplace.

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The future of work will be together, but it will also have a whole host of contingency plans for business continuity when it is not safe to be together. As for commuting, we will need to think differently about how to keep people safe on transit and that will mean better understanding the virus and its transmission.

How do you think these issues will impact office real estate in the long term?

Gilchrist: It’s too soon to tell what the long-term impact is—before we can assess that, we will need to know more about the psychological impact of the pandemic and perceptions of public transit use once there is a vaccine.

If a vaccine becomes widely available in relatively short order, it’s doubtful that employers will have drastically different long-term decision-making criteria. If COVID-19 becomes a long-term health concern, it’s possible we will see more distributed office locations where locations are segmented by team.

If households move out of dense urban areas, it’s possible employers will follow the workers and choose more suburban locations. But just as likely, workers may want to be where they can walk to work, which points toward an urban environment. Despite other media predictions, I don’t think we’ll see wholesale shifts to work-from-home in the long term. Survey data strongly suggests that the vast majority of workers want to get back into the office for at least a few days a week.

Which markets do you expect to be most affected by these new challenges, and why?

Gilchrist: Expensive office markets, transit-reliant office markets and offices where fit-outs are the densest will see the biggest positive and negative impacts from transit challenges related to the pandemic.

Employers will need to make decisions about whether expensive office space is worthwhile when employees can, in many cases, work from home for “free.” Employers and employees that work in transit-oriented submarkets may need to consider staggering schedules, permanently shifting some aspects of their business to home-based work, and generally allowing for additional flex time for commuting.

Finally, offices may need to de-densify to accommodate not only social distancing but also to avoid high volumes of people arriving at normal operating times.

How do you think office development will be affected going forward, considering the number of transit-oriented projects is on the rise?

Gilchrist: It’s too soon to say, but it’s possible that we will see smaller buildings, more suburban buildings, buildings designed with larger elevator cabs, floor plate designs that will better accommodate new furniture systems and simply just more development overall, as tenant demand may dictate the need for new buildings with new systems. The city is not dead for office, but it does go in cycles and the duration and depth of the crisis will dictate what kinds of long-term development decisions are made.

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